RI House to vote on joining popular vote compact

Posted April 18, 2012, at 8:32 p.m.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Rhode Island lawmakers are considering a proposal to join Massachusetts and several other states pushing to change the way the United States elects its president.

The proposal before the General Assembly would award the state’s four presidential delegates to the candidate who wins the overall national popular vote, and not the state’s popular vote as it is done now.

States across the nation are weighing similar proposals designed to ensure that a candidate who wins the overall vote doesn’t lose the White House to an opponent who wins the Electoral College.

Debate over the proposed change is pitting supporters against critics worried about the consequences of tinkering with the sometimes arcane mechanics of American democracy.

The Rhode Island House is scheduled to vote on the proposed interstate compact May 1. Eight states and the District of Columbia have signed on to the agreement already. It would not take effect until states possessing a majority of the nation’s 538 electoral votes join the compact.

Currently, most states award all of their delegates to the winning candidate in their state, regardless of the margin of victory. This winner-takes-all system creates the possibility that a candidate may rack up more delegates by narrowly winning states, even if their opponent wins more votes overall.

That’s happened four times in U.S. history, most recently in 2000 when Republican George W. Bush won the presidency even though Democrat Al Gore won the popular vote.

The popular vote compact would require a member state to award its delegates to the candidate with the most votes nationwide — even if that state’s voters favored another candidate. That would mean that heavily Democratic Rhode Island would have to award its delegates to a Republican if a GOP candidate won the most votes nationally.

Supporters of the compact say the popular vote is a fairer way of picking presidents, and that swing states like Florida and Ohio have too much power in the current system. Those states tend to play an outsize role in presidential contests, attracting more campaign advertising and luring candidates for more personal appearances.

“All we hear about is the battleground states, and how a candidate can win if they just do well in a couple particular states,” said Rep. Raymond Gallison, a Bristol Democrat who sponsored the compact legislation. “Look at 2000. We had one state that controlled the whole thing — Florida — even though Al Gore won the popular vote.”

But one critic argues that leaving presidential elections up to the national popular vote could create “mob rule.” Mike Puyana, Statehouse lobbyist for the Rhode Island Tea Party, said the change would give the largest concentration of voters — big cities — a bigger political voice at the expense of less populated areas.

“It would heavily skew the influence of urban centers,” he said. “Plus, Rhode Island’s votes would be thrown into a pool regardless of where Rhode Island voters wanted them to go. These are our votes, and nobody else should get them.”

Vermont, Massachusetts, Maryland, Washington, Illinois, New Jersey, California, Hawaii and the District of Columbia have joined the compact. Together those states control 132 electoral votes —or 49 percent of the 270 votes required for the compact to take effect.

Similar proposals have been introduced in states around the nation.

The General Assembly endorsed the compact in 2008, but Republican Gov. Don Carcieri vetoed the bill, calling it an attempt to “eviscerate the Electoral College and subvert the Constitution.”

Gov. Lincoln Chafee, an independent, supports the compact.

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